David Bowie, Damien Hirst, the Saatchi Gallery, the BBC… these are but a few of the clients who have asked British graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, known for his skill and daring, to create their visual identity, CD cover, publication, website, or advert. A designer with an edge. Who else would baptise a typeface Prozac or Bastard?
DAMN°: What triggered your interest in graphic design? Record covers drew me into it. I come from a working-class family, where you would generally take a job in the local car factory. Everybody needs someone to show them that life can be different. In my case, it was my art teacher. When I was 15, he told me that as I was obsessed by music and was always drawing band logos (punk and new wave) and album covers, I could to do this as a full-time job if I wanted to. Up until that point, I hadn’t realised it was possible to enjoy your work.
DAMN°: What do you consider some of the strongest examples of graphic design/ typography? Graphic design covers so many different areas and each piece of design has a value that changes depending on the era in which it is viewed. In other words, what qualified as good design 10 years ago, may, for various reasons – stylistic or philosophical – be seen as not very good anymore. However, maybe 20 years from now, the thinking that rejected it has itself fallen out of favour.
DAMN°: How can you adapt your style to the specific demands of a company while still maintaining a general style that links your entire production? It is not a conscious thing to have a ‘style’. For me, that would be a little dishonest and a bit superficial, like treating the work you make as a pure commodity to be transferred from client to client, or just doing something to become an identifiable brand yourself. I think it’s better to build up your mark making, elements, and symbols – which are about how you see the world – and to use them to react to the project. So when you respond to a commission, your first thought is not How should this look? but rather What is it that we have to communicate and what is the best way to do that? How do I solve this communication problem?
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DAMN°: Your work sometimes contains a political dimension. How is that achieved in what is often a consumerist context? All design is political. If you design something for a company, then you are saying you believe in the market economy because you want the object to sell, make money, generate growth (or pointless consumerism, if you wish to look at it differently). So politics is not something separate. Where I do differ is that I spend a lot of time on specific political projects. We don’t make any money from those, but we have the satisfaction of knowing that we’ve put forth what we feel is the truth, which is worth more than money. The next question is: Does it make any difference? I don’t think a poster can make a difference on it’s own. But as part of a wider strategy of raising awareness through protest and forcing something into the mainstream political agenda, it can.
DAMN°: You have created some fonts of your own. How does one invent a font? By thinking about every letterform that has been drawn since man first started writing, by thinking about all of the meanings of every word in every language, by thinking about every artistic movement that has ever occurred, and by thinking about current political, social, and artistic philosophies. And then putting all of that into each letterform you make. Quite easy, really.
DAMN°: How does it feel seeing your typefaces used by others? It is strange, because each typeface I make has a particular ideology and could only have been produced in London at that particular time. So when I see it used in a different way, it’s often really odd. The fonts turn up in the weirdest places. Once I travelled somewhere really remote and found my font being used in the local signage. When I see that sort of thing, the feeling is partly pride, in that you can see you have affected the visual language of the world and that people want to use your work. But I also have a sense of impacting a place in a way that I don’t want to. I would much rather see an interesting example by a local designer who has been influenced by his visual landscape.
DAMN°: Your Mason font was originally called Manson, named after the serial killer, Charles Manson. It is probably the most shocking name ever for a font – though Bastard and Prozac are nice contenders…. Creating a title for a typeface is actually quite a serious process. I don’t think about whether I am offending people or not. It’s more about trying to represent the font correctly, like naming a painting or a sculpture. And it’s a way to link the poetry of mark making with the poetry of language. You try and think of the tone of voice that the letters possess, their inspiration, the current ideas floating around.
DAMN°: Apparently you had already started designing before the technical revolution broke loose. How do you experience the pros and cons: craft versus infinite technological possibilities? Today, the biggest challenge is in making a decision about what to do. So much visual seduction can be created through software that you really have to be clear about what you mean to achieve: either in trying to communicate something on behalf of a client or in another area of personal development or experimentation. Craft is still needed. Bad typography and design abound because it cannot be replicated by machine. It takes a human to deal with the details, and the details are as important as the whole design concept.
DAMN°: But unlike (graphic) designers who are treated more like artists these days –some even like stars, most typeface-making craftspeople of the past were anonymous. How do you feel about that? The majority of my clients don’t care if I am famous or not. They just want good work. So you constantly have to prove that you are good. You can’t live on your reputation in design, although many try. I think the fame thing can have good and bad effects. If you compare it to music, some people actually become better and stronger when they are well known. They realise that a large audience expects them to think big in terms of their ideas. It’s the same with design. But this can also have a negative effect. It can lead to people creating a pastiche of their own work or forgetting what it means to experiment and take chances.
DAMN°: Probably more than art, literature or cinema, graphic design – but also fashion and music – can create a Zeitgeist. Do you agree? I think that creating a Zeitgeist cannot be a conscious thing. The spirit of an age flows through you. It is the summation of all the complexities of a society. It’s only when you look back several years later that you can understand what you are doing. So I think all of these things are equally important. And everything else, such as politics, war, medical advancement, etc. is going on at a particular time, as well. These things all affect and strengthen each other, representing the spirit of an age.